US based urbanist Richard Florida - once described as an “intellectual Rockstar” – shot to fame with his 2002 book The Creative Class. He was on a global speaking tour that took in many Australian cities, arguing that the secrets to economic development lay in attracting legions of creatively motivated progressives working in new economy professions. This was best done by enhancing inner urban “hipsterness” measured by a “bohemian index” with investments in public space, recreation, culture, and various other “urban chic” accoutrements. Many city leaders rushed for the Florida gospel, applying its preaching in the hope of out-hipping competing urban centres for precious jobs in the new economy.
But Florida has since re-canted, admitting that the focus on inner urban “cool” may have worked for the wealthy and privileged but at the same time created city wide disadvantage. His latest book The New Urban Crisis suggests an alarming wealth divide is opening up between inner urban and suburban landscapes.
“Across nearly every metro area, middle-class neighborhoods are disappearing. Our cities and suburbs are being replaced by a patchwork metropolis, in which small areas of privilege are surrounded by vast swaths of poverty and disadvantage. The rise of a winner-take-all-urbanism, with a small group of winners and a much larger span of losers, signals a profound crisis of today’s urbanized knowledge economy that threatens our economic future and way of life,” he now says. Talk about a change of heart.
While much of this may be true for major cities in the USA (where hipster havens like San Francisco or New York are losing millennials to lower cost of living centres in flyover country) is it also true for Australian cities? Are we seeing a concentration of wealth in inner urban suburbs while suburban areas languish? Certainly, the infrastructure and policy focus in most Australian cities has, for the past 15 years, been very much on enhanced inner urban amenity. But has this been enough to draw more high-income residents to the inner city and cause professionals to abandon the suburbs?
The evidence is revealing. Here’s a quick wrap of the picture across Australia’s capitals as of the 2016 Census.
The household income difference between inner urban residents of Brisbane and those of the wider metro area have widened in the 2006-2016 period. Over that ten years, inner city residents (roughly within a 5 kilometre radius) have gone from enjoying incomes that were on average 13% higher than the wider metro average to now 23% more than the metro average. In dollar terms, inner Brisbane households earn on average $357 a week more than the metro average for the city.
However, the traditional patchwork quilt of high and low income suburbs remains a dominant feature. The suburb you live in still tends to define your household wealth status – be it high or low. Brisbane’s western suburbs (Fig Tree Pocket, Pinjarra Hills, Brookfield etc) are still among the highest income earners. South eastern suburbs (Carindale, Wakerley, Rochedale) are fast catching up. There are inner suburbs on the high income list (Bardon, Paddington, Bulimba etc) but there are others (like Kelvin Grove or Herston) which are well below the city wide average.
So while it is true the inner city is gentrifying, the preference among many high income households still appears to be for traditional suburban neighborhoods, many in middle to outer urban areas.
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